Monday, June 25, 2012

Slavery and D&D

I never considered using slaves in my D&D games until I read the Al-Qadim setting and found them listed in the equipment section. I remember being shocked at the thought, my 12 year old brain thinking it was crazy for TSR to do that. Seriously pushing the envelope!

Ok, yes, I was a fairly sheltered 12 year old.

I remember that I quickly shifted our game to Al-Qadim and introduced slavery, and for about a week it was edgy and interesting.

After that... it just dropped away. I don't think I ever removed slavery from my game, it just stopped coming up.

During High School and College I was running a lot of Forgotten Realms, and since that setting doesn't have slaves as the default, the only time it came up was when fighting off a drow or Zhentarim slave raid on a village or town.Or freeing slaves from a previous raid. While they weren't generally heroes, they weren't interested in keeping slaves. My 3.x games were pretty much the same, with slightly more heroic tendencies... slightly. On the other hand they were just as likely to use the "rescued" slaves as meatshields/hostages if they weren't given what they felt they were owed for rescuing them.

My 4e game is set in the default "points of light" Nentir Vale, and the PC's are clearly Heroes, so the only slaves they'll likely encounter will be the kind they go and rescue. Actually, they've already done that...and even gave back a reward once.

As for my (rarely run and desperately in need of fleshing out) old school game? Slavery is probably in there somewhere, but I haven't decided how prominent a feature I want it to be.It wouldn't bother me to have it as a significant part of the campaign, but it also wouldn't bother me if it didn't come up.

So I'm curious how common slavery is in your games, and how involved PC's are in it. There are 2 polls off to the right, let me know!

I think it's stupid that I feel like I have to say this... but here goes: Slavery in the real world is and was a terrible practice, both throughout history and today. I do not support slavery in any way. This is a blog about a fantasy role playing game that combines aspects of history and fantasy to create a realm of imagination. If you can't handle that, go play Candyland.


  1. Actually been a slave master in a D&D 3rd game. GMs own world, playing a desert dwelling bunch of dwarves with me as a lawful/evil cleric who saw an opportunity to keep himself alive through those troublesome first five levels, by getting himself a slave (fighter class) who was promised eternal glory in the afterlife if she kept me alive. It worked and created an interesting dynamic.

    She was promised freedom after a certain amount of time had passed, and the only negatives she suffered were in that all the equipment she had used until earning her freedom belonged to the church ad she would have to buy them back if she wanted to use them. We were all grown ups and I think that that might be a necessity when handling slavery. Maybe not condemning those who can't to the realms of Candyland for eternity, but certainly don't attempt to use slavery in any way other than a convenient rescue operation unless your players can handle it with maturity.

    1. This is exactly how to handle slavery in a mature way.

      As for the condemnation to candyland, it isn't for people who can't handle slavery in their games, but for people who can't handle the general concept of RPGs (combining fantasy and reality in different ways).

  2. I've almost always had slavery as part of my campaign worlds, but it works more like classical or Nordic slavery than Southern American slavery. Slaves tend to become slaves through punishment for a crime or by being captured in a raid/war. They have rights. They can buy their freedom. Their offspring are not slaves.

    It's usually not a big part of any games I run, and it rarely ever comes up in the game, except for, as you pointed out, rescuing prisoners who have been captured by raiders to become slaves. But it's there, and not necessarily evil.

  3. Slavery is one of those things that you need to ask your players if they are comfortable with. I've met a couple people that are sensitive to it.

    It also matters how it's presented in the game. I see two axes. One is how bad slavery is. Lord Gwydion mentioned a kind of slavery that is less extreme. I think the other extreme might be a culture of devil worshippers where the culture has developed art forms around the painful torture of slaves.

    The other axis is how common/tolerated is it? One end is like most places in our modern world. Slavery is illegal and uncommon. When it's found, society punishes it severely. On the other end, slavery is common, legal and expected. Anyone without a slave is definitely a lower class citizen. At the extreme, you either own a slave or you are a slave.

    Fantasy worlds bring up the other issue of racism. Does it matter if only goblins are enslaved?

    How about this - there are walled cities and everything between them is a harsh land with horrific monsters. The cities can only support so many people. The slave class has chosen to be slave in the safety of the city over freedom in the deadly lands outside.

  4. Slavery is an odd topic given that we as gamers agree that it is abhorrent, yet in the sort of cultures and worlds we set our fantasy games in, it should also be near endemic.

    My thoughts on it here:

  5. In my LL/AEC setting there are slaves that are mostly the race of people from the country to the east. Very little sympathy is give to the People of the East as they are not only slavers but cannibals as well.

  6. My home brew campaign world is very closely based on the Classical period of western Europe. As such, slavery isn't horrible, it just is. Nobody in the setting (not even Paladins) view slavery as evil. Slaves as protected by law (albeit, property law) and in most of the game worlds cultures, they receive tips and wages towards buying their freedom, just as as they did in Classical Europe. The mark of a civilized culture lies in my setting is not (as in modern times,) how that culture treads the ill, the aged and the infirm; but how a culture treats it's slaves. Only barbarian cultures "mistreat" their slaves (by the standards of their time) and preclude means for slaves to eventually buy their freedom.

    In most of the game world's cultures, slavery is looked on rather like bankruptcy is today: some unfortunate event, possibly your own fault, possibly sheer mischance, has put you in a bad situation. But if you work hard and keep your head down, you can once again earn your freedom and a respected (or at least, respectable) place in society.

  7. In the gonzo world of the Autonomous Subsurface Environment slavery is a fact, though so are incredibly violent anti-slavery secret societies and vindictive masked slaver guilds. My own players have expressed little interest in it, but if they did hiring an army of gladiator meat-shields would be a lot more trouble than it was worth. That said my campaign isn't a grimdark serious one, it's basically Thundarr the Barbarian - so slavery is handled in a 1970's camp manner, it's around but the details are not well fleshed out. It hasn't presented a problem but I can see nefarious power gamers making an absolute hash of it.

  8. While more of a writer than a gamer, I would probably add slavery to either a fantasy or scifi setting in order to add flavor and show that there's always an underlying darkness to humanity. Unfortunately, we hairless apes tend to shy away from confronting unpleasant subjects like slavery.